Single, widowed and divorced people who have been cooped up at home alone for weeks or months during lockdowns during the current pandemic have testified that it has been very hard to cope. Some have said that they would prefer getting infected with the Coronavirus than being so isolated.
Yet, being alone is not necessarily all bad, according to psychologists at Bar-Ilan University (BIU) in Ramat Gan (near Tel Aviv) who have just published their research in the journal Social Psychology under the title: “The Language of Being Alone and Being With Others.” Their findings reveal the intricacies of people’s experiences in these basic social conditions.
The study, headed by Dr. Liad Uziel of BIU’s psychology department, used a unique approach of analyzing self-generated text from more than 1,700 participants who performed a sentence-completion task regarding their experience alone and their social experience when in the company of others. This approach cast light on people’s perceptions when free to express themselves without being bound to specific questions.
The results of the study, just published in the journal Social Psychology, showed that when people think about themselves with others, they are more focused on the present, and less focused on the past or the future than when they think about themselves alone. In addition, when with others, more anxiety and anger – but less sadness – are expressed than when alone.
“Social psychology has long studied the effects of basic social
conditions on behavior. Notably, research on the effect of
the mere presence of others on performance had set the
stage for modern experimental social psychology.” they wrote. “From the early studies on the social facilitation effect, evidence shows that the presence of others (vs. being alone) induces systematic behavioral changes. For the most part, these changes were studied in the context of task performance, where it was found that performance of simple tasks is facilitated and of complex tasks impaired by the mere presence
Time alone is reflected in people’s thoughts as an opportunity to think about past experiences and future plans, to relax from the stress of social interactions, and to engage in self-selected leisure activities.
“Being alone and being with others are represented in people’s minds as qualitatively different experiences, each contributing to the formation of an integrated self. One needs a combination of constructive alone and social experiences, as each type of social setting contributes much-needed, unique advantages,” he added.
For those facing current lockdowns alone, Uziel suggested that the team’s findings highlight potential constructive effects of time alone and indicate that this could also be an opportunity for personal growth.
In each study, participants performed a sentence-completion task referring to their experience alone/with others. The responses were analyzed using a text analysis software. Results showed that in a “with others” (vs. alone) mindset, people are more focused on the present, and less focused on the past or the future. When responding to the question involving “with others,” more anxiety but less sadness is expressed. Social motives – affiliation and power – are more pronounced in the “with others” mindset, whereas leisure activities are salient in the alone mindset.
Research on aloneness strongly suggests that time alone allows people to engage in leisure activities, such as watching TV, reading or enjoying. Yet leisure activities are also a nonnegligible part of our social life (such as hanging out with friends or partying). The role that leisure activities
play in people’s perception of their alone/with others mindset was therefore also tested. Finally, yet relatedly, one can assume that the distraction-free time alone would nurture creativity and deep thinking. In various writings, solitude is considered a period of idea generation, problem solving, and active imagination.
The average participant wrote about 22 words, yielding jointly
38,310 words that served as the basis for the analysis. The results point toward a need to expand existing models concerning both conditions
toward a richer understanding of the positive elements comprising these experiences. “One direction,” concluded Uziel, “would be to build on the positive elements discovered by the strong association of aloneness
with leisure activities. In the minds of the participants, alone time was very much fun time.” While previous research often associates aloneness with depression, the present findings suggest that aloneness holds strong pleasurable elements.”